ERNIE Merrick has opted not to “risk” Ben Kantarovski against Wanderers in Sydney on Friday but the Jets coach is confident that the midfield enforcer will be over his hamstring issues well before the A-League finals.
In the meantime, Merrick plans to experiment with a couple of different combinations in the centre of the park.
“We won’t take a risk with Ben,” Merrick said on Tuesday. “It is that hamstring that bothers him. It is just really us going on the safety side of things. It gives me a great opportunity to give more time to Wayne Brown or Riley McGree and maybe see if Steve Ugarkovic can play a holding role. Nick Cowburn is another. We have really good depth to cover.”
Kantarovski, who has re-established himself as a central figure under Merrick, missed three games in January with a hamstring injury. Initially, he was getting referred pain in his lower back but after a series of scans they discovered a small tear low in the tendon.
The 26-year-old returned against Wellington and was untroubled in the past three games. However, it flared up after a heavy training load last week.
“It is just me erring on the side of safety rather than taking a risk at this time of year,” Merrick said. “It is a minor detail. He trained really hard during those three days. He has a lot of tightness and we decided not to take any risks with him. We have got more out of Ben this year than he has been able to deliver for quite a few years. He has not only improved physically, as a football player – his ability to win the ball, get forward etc – has improved out of sight.”
Brown performed well when last covering for Kantarovski alongside Ugarkovic in a 2-all draw with Sydney FC and wins over the Mariners (2-0) and Roar (1-0).
“Ben has been playing really well, but I have always rated Wayne really highly and he will play a major part in this game on Friday night,” Merrick said. “It will give me an opportunity to check combinations we can use if we are down or if we are up, and whether we need to save a game or really go for it. We had a good look at videos this morning on how we want to play.”
In the other change from the Jets’ 2-0 win over Melbourne Victory, Daniel Georgievski returns from suspension in place of Lachy Jackson.
The Jets did not play on the first weekend of the split round. Wanderers pumped Wellington Phoenix for consecutive wins and moved into sixth spot on 25 points, 12 adrift of the Jets.
“I think they are beginning to get into rhythm and play the way Josep Gombau wants them to play, which we witnessed when he was at Adelaide,” Merrick said. “They are playing some good football now having won two games in a row. They will obviously be keen to win a third.”
A win on Friday would shoot the Jets seven points ahead of third placed Melbourne City with seven round remaining, but Merrick said his focus was purely on constant improvement.
”I don’t ever mention the position on the league ladder,” he said. “It is about improving all the time and what we can do to get better. Individually, talking to them about their job description and getting it clear in their head.”
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